The Lovely Bones: The Art of Seeing

Once upon a time, Susie aspired to be a wildlife photographer. With stealth, she would scour her home and neighborhood for sights that would capture her mind’s eye, and with the press of a button, she’d freeze the moment for safekeeping, a measure of the majesty and intrigue the world had to offer, as well as her ability to recognize it. Filled with an awesome sense of possibility, she’d soar through the air, enraptured by the ability to record the magic with which she was surrounded. It was nothing short of her life’s calling.

Which doesn’t mean Susie didn’t seek a life on the other side of the camera, as well. Wanting the privilege of being seen as much as the power to hold another in her gaze. And so, in the privacy of her own room, the camera would serve as Susie’s mirror, allowing her to experiment with the different faces she might want to show the world, rehearsing the ways that she – and her image – might be exist in another’s sight. Not merely a device through which she could practice her future profession, the camera would also serve as a portal to a multitude of possible futures, imagining the kind of person she might become.

Perhaps this is why, in the midst play, the lonely penguin had caught her interest as a young child. Frozen and inert, stuck in time. Unable to move. Perhaps even unable to see. Certainly, unable to interact with those about him. Unless and until the initiative was taken by another.

Surrounded by a world of objects that obeyed her every command, perhaps she already had a sense of what it meant to be alone. What it meant to be queen of an inanimate realm. On some level, aware that this world of subjects and objects – of those that behold and those that are beheld – relegates each to a certain kind of imprisonment. Forever cut-off from each other and doomed to isolation.

Perhaps this is also why the resolution of this paradox offered by her father would become such an attractive one, even if it meant tolerating his obsession with inserting ships into tiny bottles. For when his ideal sat between the two of them – a conduit for the energy that exists between a father and a daughter – the unfurled model would allow the ideal to be transferred, creating a brief moment of paradise. For that second, the gulf between Susie-the-beholder and Susie-the-beheld would be closed, bridging the two sides of an existence that seemed forever lost to the other.

Just her and him – and the intervening glassy prison – in his den.
Dad and Susie-Q. His first mate.

Although she probably had yet to recognize it, this is one side of a daughter’s power, one in which both she and he are willing partners. It is precisely this relationship that would come to sustain each of them in Susie’s afterlife, struggling against death’s embrace. It is a strange – and strained – relationship, one in which the Murderer comes to replace Dad’s favored pastime, a perverse intermediary that joins the pair. For it is Susie’s death at the killer’s hands that unites father’s earth with Susie’s heaven, an echo of an earlier time when she was able to sit by his side, the apple of his eye.

But now, it’s nothing other than an escape from the awful truth of her murder. It’s what sustains her otherworldly paradise, and it’s what keeps her father returning to her room. It’s a bond of love that seeks to obliterate the unthinkable and – when it succeeds, even if faltering – it’s the perfect antidote to the knowledge that continues to haunt them, refusing to go away. Each depending on the other so that neither will have to confront the dark pit of emptiness, alone.

Although she might prefer to forget, Susie’s relationship with her father is about forgetting what she already knows: the awful understanding that came in the immediate aftermath of her annihilation. The blinding light of her Murderer’s bathroom. The ugly stains of what had been done to her. Evidence of a brutality no child should ever have to endure.

When the horrible truth had first dawned on her, Susie had screamed bloody murder – a protest against what had already been accomplished by his hand – leading to her dissolution into thin air. Transported far away to another place, absent time. To the world of the In Between.

While there, the gazebo would become her favorite perch, the place from which she could glance back at the world to which she no longer belonged. Trapped in the In Between, a place where one is met with visions of a life left behind, caught between the play of light and shadow, unable to fully let go of what had already been taken away.

It should come as no surprise that Susie is caught in a state of indecision, unable to pick the kind of ending she would like to give her life’s story. For if one believes in the possibility of reincarnation, it’s a question about the nature of one’s transition toward whatever might come after her demise. Will it be as a wrathful demon, on the heels of hatred and revenge, or as an infant in the arms of her loving father? Or will she be forever trapped in this space, a hungry ghost living precariously through the lives of others, even as she yearns for the absent Moor?

In this bardo state – in this place where time stands still – Susie doesn’t quite know what she’s looking for: vacillating between the ecstatic highs of virtual reunions with her father, dancing with her newfound playmate, eavesdropping on her family, seeing how they cope in the aftermath of her death, taking delight in watching her sister fall in love, observing the odd friendship that develops between Ray Singh and Ruth Connors, all while suspended in the air.

Everything except walking through the dark door of death that beckons to her.

It’s only when the fiery rage spirals out of control, when Susie and her father are caught-up in the desire for hot-blooded revenge, that this indecision will come to an end. For she will discover that seeking justice through the Murderer’s elimination, as if that would make the pain of his crime disappear, is no solution. It’s a point made all the more explicit in the novel (p. 120) when Susie receives advice from another.

“If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else,
stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss,
stop wondering what everyone left on Earth is feeling,
you can be free.”

Which is not to say that there was anything “wrong” with the ways in which Susie or her father dealt with the grief of her passing. Such reactions are what they are: a measure of our attachment to a life that refuses to comply with our desire, yearning for a life that provides a semblance of predictability, a modicum of respect, and a moment’s peace. Is that too much to ask?

But the question Susie eventually has to face is whether her feelings have hardened into habit, an ingrained refusal to leave the path of the familiar, even if habit’s only reward is the certitude of the pain and loss caused by her death. It is also a question of whether Susie is willing to relinquish the power she wields over her father, including the pleasures that it brings, however attenuated they may have become. For just like her family, the task with which Susie is confronted is finding the grace to achieve the impossible: coming to terms with her death.

This is no small task, especially for Susie. For however difficult it may be to deal with the murder of one’s daughter or sister, there’s nothing that compares with a child having to face the truth of her termination. One’s own life cut short. When the Murderer took Susie’s life, she was still marveling at what the world had to offer, only beginning to establish her place among the living, still looking to her parents as the ones in whose eyes she wished to be seen.

But on one awful day, apparently no different than any other, it turned out that the seeing would be done by an uninvited other, assembling an image in his mind that would eventually lead to her decimation. As described in Sebold’s novel (p. 129), only later would Susie come to understand what that kind of seeing actually meant:

his look bearing down –
his wanting something unspoken that to give him
would equal [my] oblivion.

For Susie, it’s nothing short of a cruel joke to discover that the task of coming to terms with her death would also mean having to abandon her father’s ideal of perfection, learning to tread on another path that would lead her away from the security of paternal love and affection. Equally cruel is the discovery that the gazebo – her own bubble from which to view the world – would be taken from her as well, that she would no longer be able to take comfort from her visions of other lives living on an earth to which she no longer belonged.

Which is not to say that her earthly visits have been for naught; neither have they merely been a form of escape. It is through her visions of grief that Susie learns to recognize her death, even how to mourn for her own passing. It is through her father’s anger and her mother’s solitude that Susie first witnesses what had previously lain beneath the surface, and gain an understanding of what it is that brought them together and what it is that would drive them apart. It is their trials and tribulations – including their separations – that eventually gives her the strength to tread the path that stretches out before her.

It is also the unexpected sight of love’s blossoming that fortifies Susie’s quest. Between her sister and the boy that would become her husband. Between the grandmother and Susie’s family, taken under her wing during her daughter’s absence. Between Ray Singh and Ruth Connors – the most unlikely of pairs – the haunted girl and the one who stands alone. Even the tentative reconciliation that we find at the story’s end, between Susie’s mother and her father. Each providing a counterbalance to the terror of her own elimination, allowing her to experience a certain levity when faced with the weight of the task at hand.

And so, when she is able to leave her father’s protection and the consolation provided by the ones she has left behind, Susie will be faced with confronting what was accomplished at the hands of her killer. When the vault that contains her broken body is finally opened, Susie will make a unexpected discovery: a single blossom rests there, as if untouched by her Murderer’s hand. In the face of this surprise, the (new) question facing Susie is what she will make of this, what she is able to see: looking – not at or by another – but allowing her gaze to fall upon her self. Is it a token of what was stolen from her, or is it the very essence of what remains?

The distance between these answers is the very path that marks Susie’s journey.
It is also a measure of her healing :


~ by mistified on May 28, 2010.

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